Unlike other cities, where the issues and concerns that shape urban planning are intended to set the scene for architectural display and progress, Berlin's major task has, for years, remained in having to cope with political and cultural moments and monuments, remnant of the German history. Berlin establishes its laboratory, not by the clarity of its contradicting historical cultural layers in the contemporary city or its aspired goal of maintaining a closely knit and multi-functional inner city, but by embracing its past in its very rejection. And so, ontemporary Berlin, develops a style characterized by compulsiveness and fear, one that is forged from economic calculations and self-assured capitalism. History, for Berlin has always been inescapable; be it the period between the two world wars, the reign of Adolf Hitler and its influences on the city, the divided city and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin continuously evolved as a register of changes, having a troubled relationship with its past and yet continuously living in it and with it - "A city condemned to always 'become', and never really be.."
Berlin as a city evolved with time and in its very specific historic context, in the process developing ideas that became universal - new urban ideas that it developed through a projection of it ownself into the future. For instance, the IBA or the International Berlin Exhibition attempted a critical reconstruction of the urban structure through local as well as international agendas. With repeated contemporary challenges facing the city, Berlin became a laboratory for the "mixed city" dealing with concerns ranging from industry, productivity, mobility, environment sensitivity and public development, an instant city that was flexible in program and could attempt and accommodate a variety of temporary projects - hence, a model that could develop a universal vocabulary.
Although a 200 year old city, Berlin had no Roman roots or origin, was neither a major medieval trade or religious center. The first city map of 1648 declared Berlin as the capital of Prussia, and strategically located it between two rivers, connected well for commercial and economic growth. This Unter den Linden was modeled on Haussmann's French boulevards and the Prussian monarchy set up its royal seat here. The city was based on new laws of land ownership with clear geometries, primacy of the street and distinction between monument and fabric. Decentralization focused away from the palace and new centers came up in the city using architecture to shape the fabric and create public spaces, rather than standing out as independent monuments. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Karl Friedrich Schinkel introduced the idea of the Cubical City - the perception of space beyond the object of architecture, giving it instead a space channelizing capacity to produce urban space. Quintessentially a modern idea, it attempted to create interior-exterior connections so that architecture was its own agency, a polemical island, panoramic and anti-perspectival, and buildings controlled visual experience.
With industrialization and development of the railways, the city centre grew and new tendrils began emerging outwards, soon becoming a part of the main city. In 1862, the Hobretcht Plan for building and infrastructure plotted a grid on the city's urban plan and unplanned evolution soon led to a planned zoning. By the time Schinkel died, the city had expanded way beyond its original limits, as Apportionment resulted in Fabric Parceling, so that all blocks were subjected to the same economic imperatives and had to maintain the common streets that connected them. Mietskaserne or rental barracks with ornamental cast concrete facade treatment and completely flexible interior plans became the typical structure of this fabric.
The Greater Berlin Competition looked for conceptions of a New City with a radical simplification of public and private segregation and for the development of some parts of Berlin that were less developed. The plans of Peter Behrens's 'Berlin's Third Dimension' and Martin Waugner's 'The Better Berlin' were inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Garden City concept and Le Corbusier's Villa Contemporaine which not only questioned scale but style, suggesting that the classical structures need to be re-conceptualized.
The end of the World War I saw experimental modernism rise in Berlin, followed by the rise of the Nazi party. Waugner's Horseshoe Settlement crossed out the language of old fashioned architecture and looked at details at, both, macro as well as micro-level. Unlike the previous allegories, a new relationship between the city and nature was established, one that was devoid of culture and transportable to other sites. The traditional city square was transformed into the urban square, and transport arteries became the criteria of shaping space. The entry of the skyscraper in the scene resulted in the activation of public spaces on the ground to facilitate them. The photo montages of Mies Van der Rohe's conceptions for Alexander Platz saw architecture as intrusions in the city, open, articulated and keeping the movement of its users in mind. With the Nazi party coming to power, Adolf Hitler and Albert Spears attempted to develop the city as a aesthetic and spatial representation of its political agendas. And then came the great war.
Following the World War II, an intention to get rid of the past, its city and structure, and start over surfaced. The tension between socialist and capitalist ideas became evident and soon the Berlin Wall divided East Berlin from the West, each with their own administration, planning and ideals, seeing parallel but divergent directions of urban planning. A large number of spectacular new building projects, such as the construction of the New Government Centre and the rebuilding of Potsdamer Platz and Liepzeger Platz, located at the interface of former East and West Berlin, made major contributions towards creating the special style of "New Berlin". Yet the centre remained dominated by large empty spaces, still bearing the scars of war and of the former border.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall came the era of Hans Stimmann, who adhered to the principle of "critical reconstruction" -- which essentially led Berlin back to the past instead of giving it a sendoff to the future. This engendered the bewildering architecture of Potsdamer Platz and a fantasy notion of an urban landscape, which degraded the city to a backdrop and indiscriminately combined bits of scenery and models to create an imaginary 19th century. Even today, this regime of aesthetic compulsion, fear and cronyism continues to have a decisive impact on tendering and contracting. Owing to Stimmann's doctrine, practically no leading architect has built anything exhilarating in Berlin, the most notable exception being Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum. Architects either had to turn their creativity inwards, such as Frank Gehry with the atrium of the DZ Bank building on Pariser Platz, or they were condemned to the side streets, such as I. M. Pei was with the extension of the German Historical Museum. Nevertheless, the city's narrow-mindedness, as it is celebrated on Berlin's famous Unter den Linden boulevard, could definitely use a jolt of the contemporary.
In an era when other cities are zapping themselves awake with architectural shock treatment, Berlin has been dreaming of rebuilding the old Baroque city and embracing a retro-architecture vaguely evocative of the imperial era under the Kaiser. And although deemed regressive in some circles, this anti-modern, indifferent view of aesthetics rules its psychological and physical atmospheres, making it a modern Mecca for generations of artists, nightlife revelers and optimists from around the world.